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Chicago Looks to Social Enterprise to Address Urban Challenges

Anne Field | July 11, 2016

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Chicago has more than its fair share of urban woes. Cook County, a county of more than 5.2 million of which Chicago is the county seat, has a poverty rate of 17%. It is plagued by violence and crime. And the county suffered the biggest population decline last year of any county in the U.S. So the country is turning to social entrepreneurship to tackle some of its most pressing social and economic challenges.

A new initiative called the Commission on Social Innovation aims to help meet the needs of the area’s struggling underserved population, in part by encouraging and supporting the activities of social enterprises. Created by Cook County officials, the Commission may offer a model for other cities looking for innovative solutions to urban challenges.

The hope is that a creative all-hands-on-deck partnership between government, nonprofits and businesses with a social purpose might boost economic development and opportunities for the area’s many impoverished residents.

“We’re marrying the social mission of a government program with the market-driven approach of business,” says Marc J. Lane, vice chair of the Commission and a Chicago-based lawyer and financial advisor. “It’s all about engaging businesses to pursue market-driven strategies that have a financial and social return.” Lane, by the way, also says he’s well aware of Chicago’s reputation for dysfunction.

The chair of the Commission is Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the Chicago politician who ran for mayor of Chicago. He lost to incumbent Rahm Emanuel last year in a highly contested election.

Ultimately, Lane and Garcia want the initiative to be a model for other cities and counties. The Commission’s plans are still in the early stages, cautions Lane. But they include the following:

  • Making the most of major place-based institutions. The idea is explore how to  tap the buying power of universities, museums and other place -based anchors, turning them into customers of social enterprises run by the unemployed and underemployed. One example: working with the Illinois Medical District to develop mission-driven healthcare businesses.
  • Addressing food deserts. The plan is to help residents in areas that lack affordable–or any–supermarkets to build neighborhood grocery stores.
  • Revitalizing the crumbling Port of Chicago. The Commission wants to work with such government units as the Illinois International Port District to revitalize the Port, largely through a combination of impact investment and philanthropy.
  • Redeveloping blighted areas. By partnering with the Cook County Land Bank Authority, the goal is to help entrepreneurs redevelop abandoned, vacant or foreclosed properties, rebuilding neighborhoods while creating  opportunities for businesses.

According to Lane, the Commission also can weigh in on any legislation or regulations being considered by the county to ensure officials are making the most of the rules’ potential positive social impact.

“The county has a role as a convener, as a collaborator and as a catalyst for business,” says Lane. “But it’s looking at business through the lens of solutions that address poverty and the problems that come with poverty.”

Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. A version of this article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.

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